Relatively recently, additive manufacturing (e.g. 3D printing) has become commonplace in the cultural heritage sector, but I often have individuals ask me, “What is the point of 3D printing?” Is it not just a pretty object (and sometimes not so pretty object if one prints with an inexpensive 3D printer and the filament is not cleaned properly)? I wondered the same thing before I became involved in 3D modeling and, to a lesser degree, 3D printing. I stopped wondering as soon as I was able to hold a Native American object at the Tampa Bay History Center (I was employed there for a bit) without worrying about dropping it or degrading it.
There are many museums that are using 3D printed replicas of ancient artifacts to allow the public to experience an object in a tactile manner. Have you ever wanted to roll your fingers over a life-size version of Aphrodite or hold a piece of pottery that was once used by the Inca over 500 years ago? Well, I have (but I am a bit strange…). Now, you can. Museums, such as the Peabody, the MET, Yamagata, and TBHC (just to name a few of many) are realizing the value of displaying replicas rather than real objects. Once an artifact reaches the public, it has the potential to be stolen, broken, handled inappropriately, and ultimately gone forever. Also, once an artifact is out of a controlled environment, it has the potential for degradation as a result of weathering. I would hope that a museum would not put a “priceless” artifact in an uncontrolled environment, but it is a possibility. 3D printing mitigates all of these factors.
What is the downside to having museum objects 3D printed and displayed? Well, are you really getting the full visual experience from an object that isn’t necessarily the object? Should an artifact sit in a storeroom for all eternity (or until the museum shuts down or the object is “given” to another museum). It seems an injustice to the public and the object, but what is more important – mitigating the chances of losing an ancient artifact forever or never getting to experience its wonder and beauty first-hand? I do not really know the answer to that question. But, if a museum decides to display 3D printed replicas of artifacts than they should have a good 3D model of the original online for you to view.